U.S. Senator Kerry: Assad ready to resume talks with Israel
Former Democratic presidential nominee says Syria wants American participation in talks.
A prominent U.S. senator said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad told him last month in Damascus that Syria is prepared to resume peace negotiations with Israel and embrace a 2000 Arab initiative offering peace in exchange for territory captured from the Arabs in the 1967 Mideast war.
"Syria would like direct American participation in these peace talks," said Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Reversing the Bush administration's dismissive stance on Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday during a visit to Israel she would send two senior officials to Damascus this week.
Endorsing President Barack Obama's decision to dispatch the U.S. envoys to Damascus, Kerry said Assad is looking past Iran to improved relations with Arab countries and with the West.
Kerry said that "Assad told me recently in Damascus he is prepared to resume peace negotiations with Israel and embrace the Arab Peace Initiative once again."
Kerry's February trip to Damascus appears to have been a precursor to Clinton's move, but Kerry had not previously revealed the details of his talks with Assad, saying only the Syrian leader offered prospects of real cooperation.
Kerry warned that Syria will still try to play both sides of the fence for as long as it can. But Kerry said he believes Assad understands its long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbors and the West.
Similarly, Israeli officials have expressed interest in peace talks with Syria.
Speaking at the Saban Center for Middle East peace, a private think tank, Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. should act on Assad's interest in direct U.S. participation in peace talks with Israel. "We should play that role if our presence can move the process forward," he said.
Kerry also proposed the United States provide financial incentives to encourage Syria to make peace with Israel.
The two countries last held peace talks in January 2000 under the supervision of President Bill Clinton. More recently, they have been holding indirect talks through Turkey - over Iran's objections, Kerry said.
Syria has been a close ally of Iran and is believed to be a conduit in delivering Iranian missiles and other weapons to anti-Israel extremist groups.
"We should have no illusion that Syria will immediately end its ties to Iran," Kerry said, "but that shouldn't threaten us as long as their relationship ceases to destabilize the region."
"It benefits Syria if Assad looks west for new relationships," Kerry said.
"The sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks," he said.
Ticking off what he considered to be causes for hope for peace in the Middle East, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate said the first has been a shift in Middle East geopolitics.
"The rise of Iran," Kerry said, "has created an unprecedented willingness among moderate Arab nations to work with Israel."
"This realignment can help lay the groundwork for progress towards peace," he said.
"There is a new reality," he said. "Moderate Arab countries and Israel alike are actually more worried about Iran than they are about each other."
At the same time, Kerry said U.S. opposition to new Israeli settlement activity has usually existed on paper alone.
"We will defend Israel's security unflinchingly," Kerry said. "But, he said, the settlements are fragmenting a future Palestinian state and complicating the work of Israel's defense forces."
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